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Of Hemp and History and Hysterics

Posted on March 12, 2000

By Bob Sanders, Granite News Service

Ottoman’s, a Newmarket catalogue clothing and accessories firm, employs 50 people and has sales of $5 million. When the hemp fashion craze was at its height a few years ago, hemp products accounted for nearly a quarter of its sales.

“The first time I saw hemp clothing was at a Jerry Garcia concert in Portland in 1994.

And I thought it was going to roll,” said Matt Huusko, Ottoman’s owner. “There is real money in hemp. I was brokering $95,000 in rope twine. It was amazing.”

It’s still not legal to grow hemp in America, though 32 other countries allow it. But the New Hampshire Hemp Council has been trying to get a legalized hemp bill through the state Legislature. So far attempts have failed. Here, Erin Jule, an employee at The Water Monkey in Portsmouth, appears with some of the hemp products the store offers. (Tim Boyd/staff photos)

But Huusko had to import these products from Romania and Hungary, because growing hemp here is illegal and it’s considered a drug. That’s why, after the fashion wore off, it was not economical to import hemp clothing anymore.

All that would change, Huusko said, if people in New Hampshire started growing and processing industrial hemp.

Hemp is grown in 32 countries, including Canada for the last three years. But so far attempts to legalize hemp in the Granite State have gone up in smoke. In this country, hemp is considered a form of marijuana, a controlled substance that can — and has — been seized by agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

For the last three years, the New Hampshire Hemp Council has been trying to get a legalized hemp bill through the state Legislature. This year it got the farthest, passing the initial hurdle in the House before being defeated there on Feb. 10. The bill is now back in the legislative limbo of a study committee.

Meanwhile, the Hemp Council is pursuing a court suit against the DEA to leave hemp alone. The suit could find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hemp is a business waiting to happen, if only the government got out of the way, said Mark Lathrop, chairman of the council and owner of Monadnock Hemporium.

Lathrop would like to be the first to plant. He said he already has a line of buyers waiting. Anita Roddick, the founder and chair of the Body Shop, a national chain, said she can’t get enough. Four percent of the shop’s billion-dollar sales contain hemp products.

Crane Paper, out of northwestern Massachusetts and the only supplier of paper to the federal government for currency, is also interested in hemp. Industrial hemp was literally used to make cash until the 1959.

Long hemp history

Hemp could be known as the American crop. The U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were printed on hemp paper. The first flag was woven out of hemp fabric. The young nation made it illegal not to grow it as a rotation crop to save the soil from cotton.

George Washington is even quoted as saying in 1794, “Make the most of hemp seed and sow it everywhere.”

Now hemp is making a comeback as an environmentally correct crop known for its durability in clothes, its nutritional value in food, and its healing powers as a cosmetic.

Worldwide sales jumped from $5 million in 1993 to $200 million in 1997, according to industry specialists. And sales keep growing at 24 percent a year.

The demand continues to grow even as hemp, as a fashion statement, declines. Clothing hemp sales are down, but hemp jewelry is going strong. Huusko is about to distribute candles made with hemp oil.

So if Lathrop could just seed his 68-acre West Chesterfield farm, he figures he would have it made. He thinks he could grow seven tons an acre on 20 acres and fetch $450 an acre.

But if hemp ever is legalized in New Hampshire, Lathrop would still need permission from the federal government, a process that might take years.

The DEA treats hemp as a drug, no matter what the state does. The Hemp Council’s court case started back in the spring of 1998 contests that, but the case was thrown out by a three-judge Court of Appeals panel in January.

The litigation is far from over. The Hemp Council’s attorney, Gordon Blakeney Jr., plans to appeal it to the full court, and if necessary, to the Supreme Court.

The question is whether hemp is a type of marijuana the DEA can regulate. If not, all state enforcement against it goes up in smoke, with or without any hemp legislation.

What is hemp?

Hemp is a kind of cannabis. Marijuana is a different kind of cannabis. That’s one of the reasons hemp is so cool and is selling so well.

To the untrained eyes, the leaves look the same. Indeed, even Lathrop now carries glass pipes to make enough money to carry the hemp he sells from his Keene storefront.

“You have to pander to the clientele that is familiar with the other side of cannabis,” he said ruefully.

Other retail hemp dealers are faced with the same problem. Widdershins, an accessories shop in Meredith, carries some hemp products. But its biggest sellers are the pipes. Hemp is just too expensive, said Zanya Boisseneault, a clerk at the store.

But if the price went down, “I’m sure we could sell more.”

Some people still buy hemp, said Aaron Jule, a sales person and the son of the owner of Watermonkey, a clothing and accessory shop in Portsmouth. Watermokey sells the hemp frisbees and sacks and even a hemp beer-brewing kit. The brew kit was supplied by Turning Ground, a company owned by his brother, Ethan Jule, before Ethan sold it to Fremont Hemp out of Seattle several months ago.

Unlike the Hemporium, Watermonkey never tried to make it on hemp alone. Some people just don’t want to pay twice as much for a pair of jeans. Some people will.

“It may cost twice as much, but it will last two, if not three, times as long,” Jule said.

Hemp’s relationship with marijuana hurts and helps it. Even though supporters swear there is no connection between the two, in reality, said Huusko, “The biggest problem with the hemp movement is that the people pushing it are often stoners. We don’t have enough people pushing industrial hemp that aren’t partaking of the other types.”

Congress never passed a law classifying industrial hemp as a controlled substance. But DEA, and thus far the courts, do classify it as a type of marijuana, which is a drug. And as long as it is a drug, legalizing it would send a wrong message to kids, said John Stephen, assistant commissioner for the Department of Safety.

“The main concern is the perception,” he said. “Why would the state mess with the federal drug code?”

But can it get you high?

Call it what you will, industrial hemp, as is, can’t make you high. It has some Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical psychoactive compound that could make up as much as a quarter of the concentration in high-quality marijuana. Bad pot contains as little as 5 percent. Hemp only has at .3 percent THC content.

“A teen-ager would have to smoke a joint the size of a telephone pole to get high,” said John Howell, the owner of Hempwell, a consulting business in New York City. Howell also owns a home in Tamworth.

That’s not the point, said John Stephen, assistant commissioner for the state Department of Safety. People can, and have, extracted the THC to make you high. The large availability and mass quantities of hemp would open up a new supply of drugs into the country, he said.

But advocates argue that it is the leaves that have most of the THC. In marijuana, those leaves are harvested like gold. In hemp, it’s the long stems that are harvested for their fiber and the seeds that are harvested for their oils and nutrition value — as well as to grow more hemp.

The other major law-enforcement concern is that the plants could be confused and that hemp fields could conceal a lively marijuana crop.

While the leaves look the same, especially at a young age, the hemp plant grows taller and is grown much closer together. Hemp covers acres of fields with thousands of plants. Marijuana usually grows by the handful.

“It’s entirely different. Marijuana is like horticulture. Hemp is agriculture,” said Howell.

Secondly, hemp advocates say, hemp and marijuana cross-pollinates and it is the hemp that dominates, because of its massive quantities. That brings down the THC level of the marijuana, as opposed to marijuana seriously infecting the hemp.

“The best way to get rid of marijuana is to grow fields of hemp,” Howell said.

Stephen remains unconvinced. Show me the evidence of cross-pollination, he said.

So do federal drug officials, who consider any plant with THC illegal, routinely destroy hemp along with marijuana.

“With hemp, the Drug Enforcement Administration, would not be able to don their GI Joe clothes and jump out of black helicopters to save us from the evil ditch weed,” charged Lathrop. “They want you to grow marijuana so they can bust you for growing pot, rather than look for heroine rings, because those guys shoot back.”

The advocates’ third defense against the drug confusion argument is the proposed law itself. Under the latest version the state Department of Agriculture will not only license hemp growers (who must submit a map of acreage), it will actually purchase and sell the seed to a local farmer for random sample testing for THC content.

The department can inspect the farm at will. And anyone in the drug business is out. A conviction during the past decade denies you a permit.

In addition, farmers must also get a federal permit from the DEA, which is not easy to come by.

Last December, Hawaii became the first state to obtain permission to grow industrial hemp following WWII, six months after the state Legislature legalized the plant.

But it is hardly going to be industrial scale production, at least at first. The University of Hawaii must follow DEA rules: a one-quarter acre surrounded by a chain length fence with a razor wire top and 24-hour infrared security system. North Dakota and Minnesota legalized hemp last spring also, but no farm has secured federal permission.

Despite all these restrictions, Stephen is still worried pot dealers will use hemp as a cover to either grow pot, or extract THC from industrial hemp.

“It could happen,” insists Stephen.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said Dick Uncles, the bureau supervisor of markets at the N.H. Department of Agriculture. “These folks will be the focus of all this attention. If we found pot, we would just revoke their license.”

Finally, there is the cost argument. What if a person carrying around a bag of crushed marijuana leaves claimed it was hemp. Law enforcement officials would not only have to test for THC, but the content of THC. To buy such testing equipment and to process the test costs money.

To reassure the House finance committee, the bill’s sponsors added an amendment that would allow police to bust those carrying hemp as if it were marijuana, if the carrier didn’t have a license or the necessary paperwork to show that it came from someone with a license.

The tactic worked at first. The bill got past the conservative House finance committee, 16-5, but then it failed in a 152-192 vote on Feb. 10. That was quite a reversal from the 181-167 vote on Jan. 5. But while the bill was alive Amy Robb-Theroux, D-Claremont, the bill’s co-sponsor, was fielding phone calls from around the nation by hemp industrialists.

A natural match for N.H.?

Still, even if the bill passed, it is an open question how viable hemp will be. Howell thinks it will be perfect for New Hampshire, which specializes in small niche markets, from Christmas trees to shrubbery.

“It grows in poor soil. It needs water, and New Hampshire has a ton of water, and it can stand a short growing season,” he said.

Hemp, thus far, has few natural enemies and its long roots break up the soil, aerating it for other crops. Hemp’s environmental advantage is one of the reasons corporate-minded America has been cool to it, according to Lathrop.

“There is nothing wrong with hemp except that Monsanto can’t make a bunch of money off of it,” Lathrop said. “They don’t need to genetically alter it or make it Round-Up ready. They are not going to sell a buckload of chemicals,” he said.

But it has won the plant advocates among the environmental movement, as an alternative to cotton, and even as an alternative to trees to make paper. Hemp is even mentioned as a sustainable alternative to the destruction of the rain forest. Hawaii plans to experiment by making gasoline out of hemp, similar to the corn industry’s experimentation with grain alcohol.

The hemp comeback may have started in Europe, but when Canada legalized it three years ago, the United States had a slightly cheaper source of supplies.

The Hemp Industries Association based in California knows of 320 companies that use hemp, including construction companies that use that it for roofing shingles and automobile manufacturers that use it for door paneling.

Biohemp Technology Limited in British Columbia is mainly going after the food market. Hemp seeds produce an oil and nut product that contains a superior level of essential fatty acids.

So far all of the processing facilities are north of the Canadian border, and there are some proposals to put one in California. But Mother Earth Enterprises, a New York hemp food seller, hopes to corner the eastern U.S. market by investing several hundred thousand dollars in a processing facility in a farm near Concord if the state legalized hemp.

“Everybody is chopping at the bit to get into this,” said owner Dennis Cicero, who also owns a restaurant that uses hemp products in its menu.

“Right now we buy it from Canada,” he said. “That’s business across the border being taken away from American farmers.”

The DEA made such trans-border shipments problematic last August by seizing a trailer of hemp birdseed from Canada because it had traces of THC.

The shipments were released by the end of the year, but last month the DEA made its official policy to seize any substance with any THC.

The hemp industry in Canada filed complaints with international trade boards. For now, according to Howell, customs has sidestepped the order by simply rounding off the THC level, which was no higher than .0017 to two decimal points.

Some think such skirmishes will only enhance the pressure to legalize hemp here.

Howell points to the sheep farmer next to his Tamworth property, who is watching polyester fleece fabrics kill the wool industry.

“He saw me in a wool and hemp blended sweater and was interested in growing hemp,” he said. “Right now farming is a dying business. Farmers don’t know what to do with their land. There is a lot of threatened development and abandoned farms. This rips up a community, a way of life. Hemp is option that shouldn’t be denied.”

Copyright © 2000, Granite News Service. All rights reserved.